CRT became a must-read topic for us when the SBC seminary presidents issued a statement that announced CRT to be at odds with the SBC confession of faith. I read this book so that I could get a something more than a second-hand account of CRT (this book is not technically a primary source but a primer).
This is not a book review. If you want to know more about CRT, I would suggest finding someone who ascribes to it or even reading this book to find more primary sources. Our evangelical tribe has shown an astounding ability to listen to one of our own dismantle CRT without a definition of it or having ever even listened to someone who actually holds that opinion.
If we don’t like people forming opinions about us before they’ve ever asked us a honest, open-ended question, then we can’t to the same to others. I think Jesus said something like that.
There are plenty of YouTube videos and blog posts nay-saying CRT and their proponents. They probably even have a point. But they are chemists and ministers. Are they smarter than me? I’m sure they are (another reason I’m not trying to review this book). But I’m not going to tell you why you shouldn’t embrace CRT or why it’s incompatible with Christianity. I’m just going to tell you what struck me and leave the Holy Spirit one less impersonator. You’re in good hands.
Based on reading this book that serves as an introduction to the topic, I’d have to suggest Derrick Bell as a good, first primary source as much as his name comes up.
What is CRT?
Consider this quote, “The critical race theory (CRT) movement is a collection of activists and scholars engaged in studying and transforming the relationship among race, racism, and power. The movement considers many of the same issues that conventional civil rights and ethnic studies discourses take up but places them in a broader perspective that includes economics, history, setting, group and self-interest, and emotions and the unconscious. Unlike traditional civil rights discourse, which stresses incrementalism and step-by-step progress, critical race theory questions the very foundations of the liberal order, including equality theory, legal reasoning, Enlightenment rationalism, and neutral principles of constitutional law” (pg 3).
Two quick insights to glean from the above introduction to CRT: (1) CRT does a lot of historical work to set (especially legal) decisions and actions within their wider context, (2) CRT is not only not interested in status quo but is distinct from civil rights discourse because it deconstructs status quo in search of systemic answers. To me it’s as simple as this: if you were already convinced there were some big things that needed to change, you’re going to be open to CRT, because it is transparently trying to shake things up.
Among self-proclaimed influences they list:
- critical legal studies and radical feminism
- European philosophers such as Antonio Gramsci, Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida
- American radicals such as Sojourner Truth, Frederick Douglass, MLK Jr., Cesar Chavez
- and the Black Power and Chianco movements
Now there’s probably at least one name on here that makes your heart race. But hang on. I don’t know how many times I have had people tell me “CRT goes straight back to Marxism!” But it at least made me stop and think to see the Americans on this list. Black, Christian prophets like Sojourner Truth, Frederick Douglass, and MLK Jr. are forerunners to CRT, and MLK Jr. was unfairly labeled a Marxist in his time. So let’s just remember, these brothers and sisters of ours, also all challenged the status quo and said our institutions were rife with and founded on sin. For crying out loud, Frederick Douglass (among a lot of other things) said American Christianity and Christianity proper were incompatible! (Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, 94-95). I’ve gotta give credit where credit is due; CRT has Christian roots as well.
Does CRT have it out for “whites”?
What white people need to understand is that out of all racialized groups (of which whites were primarily the ones doing the racializing), people designated as white in the last 400 years have not been persecuted or oppressed, and definitely not in the same way as other racial groups by “white people.” I have heard people complain that acknowledging this reality brings division and only compares suffering. If we’re arguing about subjective suffering, I agree that can get tricky. But CRT, at least at this level, is just working from objective historical fact.
White people and white culture are definitely being singled out. But it’s not because of the color of our skin, or “reverse racism.” I believe we all still agree (but I may be going out on a limb here) it was clearly “white people” who invented the illusion of race and who were doing the oppressing in slavery, Jim Crow, and through the Civil Rights movement. So even if you want to exclude everything from the 1960’s to present, “white people” specifically deserve to be talked to about racism. Not because you as an individual are a racist, though I have certainly acted like one in my life, but because our ancestors built things to favor people that looked like them, and often on the backs of others.
Why don’t we just stick with the Bible? I would ask, does the Bible contain the history of world civilization from the last 400 years? No. So while it calls out supremacy, “don’t consider yourself more highly than you ought,” (Rom. 12:13) and makes God’s judgment against injustice and marginalization clear (Amos 5:10-24), it doesn’t specifically call out white supremacy. But if we still think the holocaust was evil and clearly against the teachings of scripture, then why would we not evaluate our own country’s white supremacy? Again, Jesus said something like that.
Why does CRT prioritize the voice of non-whites?
It is also true, even though they want to deconstruct generalities of identity, Crits (as CRT activists call themselves) hold to an “unique voice of color” because of our specific historical context. They explain, “because of their different histories and experiences with oppression, black, American Indian, Asian, and Latino writers and thinkers may (emphasis mine) be able to communicate to their white counterparts matters that the whites are unlikely to know. Minority status, in other words, brings with it a presumed competence to speak about race and racism” (pg 11).
I emphasized that “may” in the quote above because, as I read this primer, I was struck by the circumspection and honesty with which they introduce the reader to CRT. We are told that CRT has an internal tension between materialism and idealism, economics and identity, practice and theory, etc. We are told of the disagreements external and internal to this movement. The authors describe how not all people of color agree, and how people of color have even oppressed each other. They are attaching, for the reader’s benefit, the relevant court cases and decisions that have prompted these debates. You do not have to agree with them. They don’t all agree with each other. But they do a very good job, in my opinion, of giving the lay of the land.
However, people in our tribe have essentially said the voice of color doesn’t exist. We all have access to objective facts, so it doesn’t matter if it’s six white guys making a decision that primarily affects people of color. Only that’s not true, we don’t all have equal access to the truth. We all have blindspots. And, again, if you read Frederick Douglass (Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, 31) it becomes apparent that white, Christian Americans spent a lot of effort blocking people of color access to the truth and the voice to express it.
Forgive me for a stupid illustration: if you love seafood, you may not be aware that you always try to take your wife to seafood restaurants. But your wife, you does not like seafood, is keenly aware of your blindspot, and is in a better position to let you know about it.
It’s up to us to listen to people who can see our own blindspots much more clearly.
Is CRT going to destroy our identity?
I have heard CRT described as a “trojan horse,” meaning once we let it infiltrate our institutions, it’s game over (i.e. we will lose what it means to be SBC, for example). I think it’s fair to point out you can’t really have a trojan horse when everyone rejects it out of hand because it makes them uncomfortable. CRT is more of a black sheep than a trojan horse for most of us.
As I understood, (just reading a book, not an expert here), CRT is concerned with generalizations, but specifically racialized generalizations. Of course, they acknowledge that race has no scientific basis in fact. But the context of American history and European colonization reveals that, while fictional, race has been a very powerful generalization in our recent, global history. Even Intersectionality and antiessentialism, tenets or offshoots of the CRT discussion, are pushing back, or eliminating altogether, the generalities that constitute individual identities. So for instance, “I’m more than just Christian. I’m a Baptist, a Southern Baptist, actually. And a man, but that doesn’t mean I don’t like candles!” Even that is an example of how CRT is trying to get at what I am and what I’m not.
I would argue that, sure, if we started teaching CRT in our institutions, people will definitely continue (it’s already happening) questioning their identities. Now, I always thought the goal of higher education was to honestly question and evaluate all perspectives. And let’s not forget, on this day last year, a group of light-skinned Americans, many identifying themselves as Christians, stormed our nation’s Capitol. Surely our Christian identity in America is far too unexamined.
Conclusion . . .
This book provided a very helpful overview of CRT. It also helped me realize that our problem as white people and, especially in my tribe, is not understanding the wider context (race, economics, hegemonies, social dynamics, etc.) of our own history. The reason for this reticence is that to honestly investigate the wider context will implicate our socially-constructed group (white people) in oppression. An example of this would be how SBC history never evaluates the damning words of Frederick Douglass alongside the inception of the SBC (formed over sending slave-owners as missionaries), even though they are a mere month apart.
Now, CRT is absolutely open to the accusation that they deconstruct more than they construct. I do believe there is great potential for people in this movement to lose sight of the importance of an essential identity. As in, I can envision someone saying, “I’m not all the things you say I am,” but still left wondering, “Then what or who am I?”
I think Jesus, not majority culture, has an answer for that. I think it is inevitable these conversations will be taking place more and more, especially in the wider culture and especially as the world grows more diverse and less white. Christians have the opportunity to model a Christian essentialism that places Jesus at the center of their lives . . . while the world fights off the vestiges of white supremacy and builds a new tomorrow.